A September 2003 trip
to Venasque by oldscratch
Quote: I recently spent a week with my girlfriend Maya in and around the small French village of Venasque.
The South of France is a region of stunning beauty, and no trip to Provence would be complete without visits to Gordes, an impressive medieval town perched in the hills; "The Source," one of the world’s deepest natural springs; and the Abbaye de Senanque, a humbling monument to the monastic life. The key to enjoying all these places is making sure you take your time and explore.
During our trip I wrote down a few random tips about vacationing in Provence:* Everything to eat or drink is expensive with the exception of wine. I’m not entirely sure about the math, but consuming more wine than usual seems to even out this discrepancy.* Don’t expect to eat anything but French cuisine while in Provence, and certainly don’t expect to eat vegan. * The French consider even public spaces to be private and do not take kindly to widely-smiling strangers. In fact, this American gesture of friendliness is often interpreted as both an invasion of privacy and a sign of idiocy.*If you have a problem, simply say Excusez-moi de vous deranger, Monsieur, mais j’ai une probleme. Apparently, no decent Frenchman will deny this request for assistance.
The best and really only way to get around Venasque and the surrounding region is by car, and renting a vehicle is reasonably affordable, especially if you’re willing to drive a standard transmission. A couple notes about driving in France:* I was surprised by how well the French maintained their roads--even the most remote country roads were often newly paved.* Americans will quickly notice the scarcity of SUVs on French roads. I imagine a number of cultural reasons exist to explain this phenomenon, but practical concerns such as the high cost of fuel, the difficulty of parking, and the narrowness of roads are reason enough.* Finally, one cannot discuss driving in France without mentioning the ubiquitous traffic circles. Found just about anywhere an American municipality would consider a stoplight, traffic circles are exceptional at ensuring no vehicle sits at an idle stop for very long and moreover, are a load of fun to negotiate .
We drove back to the village at 8pm and decided to eat at Chez Benoit, an attractive restaurant set far back from the street. Because the evening was particularly beautiful we also chose to take our meal outside on the restaurant’s iron-fenced front patio, and here we encountered a very lively crowd of diners, many of whom were engaged in wine drinking and combative debate.
The restaurant staff was very friendly, and upon recognizing us as non-natives, did their best to assist us with the menu. In French restaurants wine is often offered in 500 ml bottles, and because we had previously found this to be the perfect amount to share over dinner, Maya and I ordered a bottle of red for 12 euros. For dinner Maya chose a pasta dish covered with an extremely rich and pungent blend of camembert cheese, and I decided upon a very simple and rustic pizza margarita. Each of these well-prepared dishes cost approximately 13 euros and left enough room in both our stomachs and wallets for desert.
During our visit I had discovered the pleasure of French ice cream (it’s less creamy and more flavorful than its American counterpart), and since this was our last night in France, I opted for one last scoop each of chocolate, vanilla, and hazelnut. Maya ordered the chocolate mousse and found its sweet richness a perfect compliment to the savory richness of her meal.
The food at Chez Benoit was quite good, especially by American standards, but the true highlight of our meal was the restaurant’s relaxed atmosphere. If you are looking to enjoy several drinks and a long night near Venasque, Chez Benoit is a great choice.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 5, 2003
Restaurant Chez Benoit
100 Le Cours
We arrived for dinner at 7pm and were lucky enough to take our meal on the restaurant?s balcony. The night was cool, cloudless, and beautiful, and we were able to watch the sun set and the stars emerge during our almost three-hour meal.
Les Ramparts has an extensive menu and offers both a la carte and pre-fixe dinners. We selected the less expensive of the two pre-fixe choices and enjoyed a four-course meal and a bottle of red wine. The menu features several options for each course, and Maya selected a seafood tort, salmon entree, cheese board, and chocolate cake, while I opted for a house salad, pasta entree, cheese board, and nougat ice cream. Unfortunately both Maya and I speak French very poorly, but our waitresses was gracious enough to assist us in English. Because of the language difficulties, however, we did encounter some confusion regarding how much of the cheese board we were supposed to consume, and I remain fearful that we ate too much and caused offense.
Maya and I knew in advance that this would be our nicest and most expensive meal in Provence, and took the opportunity to dress up a bit. Most other diners were dressed a bit more casually, but a few wore coats and ties. The final bill amounted to 70 euros, but we found this very reasonable considering the beautiful setting and quality meal.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 27, 2003
Upon hesitantly pushing open the iron gates, we discovered a beautiful, well-maintained collection of above-ground tombs and gnarled, wind-bent trees. The small grounds of the cemetery were covered in loose, white stones, and perhaps most strikingly, the tombs themselves were marked by hundreds of ceramic flowers, photos, and other personal mementos left behind by loved ones.
Given the history of the village, I entered the cemetery assuming it was several centuries old, but the earliest inscribed date I could find was "only" 1849. Looking at the inscriptions, I noticed that most inhabitants of Venasque had enjoyed exceptionally long lives, and I imagined the village''s relative isolation had much to do with their longevity. Lack of contact with foreign diseases and the near absence of sudden, violent death by machinery so ubiquitous to modern life surely aided their good fortune, but perhaps a lifetime consumption of red wine and natural food helped as well.
One final thing to quickly note about the cemetery is that many of the tombs date from the 1990s. The recent deaths of many of these longtime Venasque residents must have meant a large turnover in home ownership, and sure enough, more and more Americans are migrating (at least seasonally) to the village.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 21, 2003
Just outside of town on D28
Attraction | ""The Source""
The spring is easily reached by following a half-mile path that winds past countless souvenir stands and several restaurants picturesquely located on the edge of the Sorgue River. Our visit occurred late in the summer, and we found the river to be quite low and its water a fairly remarkable green.
The spring itself was surprisingly small but apparently flows more impressively during early summer. It was also surprisingly accessible to tourists, and we easily scampered down a few rocks and stood on its banks. Fans of literary history might be interested to know that fourteenth century poet Francesco Petrarch (he of the Petrarchan sonnet) enjoyed doing the same.
In addition to the spring, Fontaine de Vaucluse also offers several other notable attractions that include a working paper mill, a museum dedicated to the French Resistance, and Le Chateu Des Eveques, a ruined castle that sits high above the village. If you can only do one thing in the village, however, I would simply recommend removing your socks and shoes and dipping your feet in the inviting waters.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 29, 2003
La Source - The Source
a short hike from the center of town
Attraction | "Abbaye de Senanque"
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 23, 2003
Near the Village of Gordes
04 90 72 05 72
Upon entering the church you are immediately met with the words, Voici la demeure de Diev... parmi les homes ('Behold the dwelling place of God amongst men'), and indeed, entering the Notre-Dame de Venasque is a deeply religious experience. Most tourists quietly stroll the grounds with that peculiar posture of reverence common to visitors of both churches and art museums—-hands clasped behind the back and lips inexplicably pursed. Not surprisingly, most also obeyed the "no photography" signs and instead took advantage of several beautiful postcards available on the honor system for one euro a piece. Of course, photography wasn’t prohibited outside the building, and I snapped this imposing iron cross located directly across from the church's side entrance.
The inside of the Notre-Dame de Venasque features the typical gilded magnificence associated with most medieval Catholic Churches and includes stain-glass windows, an impressive pulpit and high altar, and side chapels dedicated to individual saints. A small display also offers a brief history of the church in French, English, and German, with the most interesting details concerning the episcopate of St. Siffrein. Apparently medieval statues and paintings of St. Siffrein often depict him holding a hard-to-identify object called the "Holy Bit," a small piece of equestrian gear rescued from Constantinople during the Crusades and brought to the nearby village of Carpentras in 1203. Constructed from a nail originating from the holy cross, the "Holy Bit" is held responsible for St. Siffrein’s miraculous feats of equestrian skill.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 28, 2003
Notre-Dame De Venasque
Just off D28 as you enter the village
Attraction | "The Cats of Venasque"
The sure-footed cat pictured above is the easiest to spot in Venasque as it can always be found near the ramparts, pacing the sheer stone wall overlooking the valley (in the photo, the Venasque cemetery can be seen in the background). Because the view from this stone wall is a must-see for visiting tourists, this short-haired cat has settled into a prime spot for free food and frequent petting. On one particularly beautiful night, Maya and I took a midnight walk and discovered the picturesque sight of this cat stalking the wall beneath a giant yellow moon.
As can be seen in the above photos, this long-haired, orange cat was alternately sleepy and grumpy. Plainly only interested in those willing to stroke it, this cat would stalk off quickly at the slightest pause in your caress. Though I can’t recommend doing so, you can find this cat by checking underneath cars at the gravel parking lot on the edge of town.
I found the above cat particularly skittish and difficult to approach, so was surprised to notice it suddenly climb the balcony wall and walk through the dining room while we enjoyed a meal at Les Ramparts. None of the waiters or waitresses paid the visiting cat any mind, and I was impressed by the nonchalant respect these humans were willing to extend an animal. The French, however, are renowned for their respect of privacy and "live and let live" attitude, so perhaps the restaurant employees were simply granting the visiting cat as much right to the premises as themselves.
At the risk of offending the French (who when it comes to animal comparisons, apparently prefer the rooster), I will now offer the aforementioned stretch regarding my reading of the village cats as a reflection of rural French culture. Cat number one reminded me that the villagers of Venasque are indeed still dedicated to the hard-work of agriculture, but economic concerns make tourism both a more likely and more viable future. Cat number two reminded me that the French can be quite grumpy if your interactions with them are not in their self-interest, and finally, cat number three showed that everyone deserves respect during that most egalitarian and dignified of French customs, the taking of a meal.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 4, 2003
Cats of Venasque
All about town after dusk
In Venasque, just behind the church and overlooking the valley stands an impressive modern crucifix. The cross appeared to be constructed from I-beams and the figure from sheet metal.
Behind the crucifix, located in an alcove under a boulder is another representation of Christ, this one carved from stone. I believe it depicts Christ after the crucifixion.
One day we took a walk through the local vineyards and happened across this shrine to St. Joseph.
Behind the Abbaye de Senanque dormitories we found a carved stone statue of the Virgin Mary set atop what appeared to be a Roman pillar.
Recessed high in the wall and above the entrance of the Venasque church is another stone carving of the Virgin Mary, this one depicting her cradling the baby Jesus.
As evidenced by this statue of the Mother and Child located on the street-facing wall of a Venasque house, religion remains an important component of modern French life.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on September 26, 2003
Religious Icons of Provence
In and around Venasque
Attraction | "The Village of Gordes"
One thing you’re sure to notice both on the drive and while strolling through Gordes is the use of limestone slabs in many buildings and village structures. In French these slabs are called Lauzes, and many date from 3,500 BC. Maya and I noticed several fences topped with an intimidating layer of these stones, but apparently they appear most impressively in the Village des Bories, a small collection of Lauzes huts located a short distance from town.
The main industry of Gordes is certainly tourism, and after the quaint but sparse accommodations of Venasque, the village’s dedication to servicing outsiders made for a pleasant and productive visit. It was here that we found our first open grocery store, and we seized this opportunity to stock up on a weeks worth of food. Gordes also features a rustic green market, two bakeries, and several restaurants, boutiques, and gift shops.
The centerpiece of the Village is the striking Chateau de Gordes, a twelfth-century castle that now houses an art museum. Located in front of this castle is a large, shaded public space, and Maya and I took advantage of this civic provision to enjoy a take-away lunch of pizza bread from the local bakery.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on September 24, 2003
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